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Is the Mac Studio the right computer for your photo or video workflow?: Digital Photography Review

Last week, Apple announced the Mac Studio, a new desktop computer lineup that more or less splits the difference between the company’s existing Mac Mini and Mac Pro desktops. While the future of the Mac Pro lineup remains uncertain as Apple continues its transition to its proprietary silicon, the Mac Studio, at least on paper, seems ready to deliver on the needs of creators of all kinds. But what Mac Studio build will be best for your needs? And do you even need a Mac Studio at all? We’ll try to answer all that and more below.

While photographers and videographers both fall under the umbrella of professionals Apple is targeting with its Mac Studio, what photographers and videographers need in a computer can vary quite a bit. While photographers needs tend to top out with editing large Raw files or extensive composites, videographers could potentially need to process ProRes Raw or even 8K video. And, of course, there are those who dabble in both stills and video. So, to simplify your prospects, we’ve broken this article down into three categories: Photographers, Hybrid Shooters and Videographers.

Apple’s new Mac Studio and Studio Display.

As with any kind of buying guide, there are certainly edge cases that won’t fit to the relatively basic points I’ve hit on in this guide. But odds are if you fall in those gaps, you probably know exactly what you’re looking for anyway.

Photographers

An artist working on editing an image on Apple’s new Mac Studio and Studio display.

Starting with photographers, the Mac Studio presents a unique proposition. Until now, most photographers didn’t need the full processing power of Apple’s Mac Pro, which is overkill for all but the most demanding photography workflows.

Generally speaking, Apple’s current M1-powered Mac Mini computers are capable enough to handle robust Lightroom catalogs and photo libraries. In fact, it’s what I’ve been using for the past two years as my main computer, both for my work here at DPReview and for all of my photo work, which consists of shooting and processing thousands of photos over the course of an IndyCar race weekend.

Even when ingesting, sorting, culling and processing thousands of Raw photos, my Mac Mini doesn’t struggle to keep up, especially since both Adobe and Capture One have optimized all of their photo software for Apple’s M1 chipsets to make the most of hardware acceleration.

An illustrated overview of the features and specifications Apple’s M1 Mac Mini offers. Click to enlarge.

The one area where Apple’s current Mac Mini offerings fall short, however, is RAM. The current line of M1 Mac Mini features Apple’s M1 chipset, which can only be configured with up to 16GB of RAM (what I purchased with my Mac Mini). That’s more than enough for many photo use cases, as I’ve never found myself maxing it out in my time with the M1, but if you’re processing large Raw files or editing composites in Photoshop, additional RAM might be extremely beneficial for keeping things running smoothly, and the fact you can’t replace the RAM yourself means you’re stuck with what you buy when you purchase your computer.

It’s likely we’ll see a new Mac Mini with Apple’s next-generation chipset at some point, which will presumably support more RAM. But, as it stands, if you want more than 16GB of RAM, you’ll either need to wait for the next-generation of Mac Mini or shell out for the Mac Studio, which starts out with 32GB of RAM for the $1,999 configuration with the M1 Max (10-core CPU, 24-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine).

The I/O selection on the M1 Mac Mini. Click to enlarge. The I/O selection on the M1 Max/Ultra Mac Studio. Note there is also a UHS-II SD card reader and two USB-C or Thunderbolt 4 ports for the M1 Max and M1 Ultra versions of the Mac Studio, respectively. Click to enlarge.

There’s also the issue of ports. The M1 Mac Mini is limited to just two Thunderbolt 3 ports and while both support the maximum 40Gb/s bandwidth — and work fine by daisy-chaining various USB-C and Thunderbolt peripherals — it would be nice to have, at the very least, two more USB-C ports. (It’s worth noting the M1 isn’t capable of supporting more than two Thunderbolt 3 ports, so that’s why Apple kept it to a pair).

If you want more than 16GB of RAM, you’ll either need to wait for the next-generation of Mac Mini or shell out for the Mac Studio

Out of the box, the Mac Studio comes with four Thunderbolt 4 ports (all of which support up to 40Gb/s bandwidth) and two USB-A ports (USB 3.1 Gen 2, up to 10Gb/s). That means you’re getting double the number of Thunderbolt 4 ports and double the bandwidth out of the box. The ethernet connection on the Mac Studio is also 10Gb out of the box, while it’s a $100 upgrade on the M1 Mac Mini. You’ll also get a built-in UHS-II SD card slot reader on the front, with two USB-C ports on the M1 Max Mac Studio.

If any of those caveats are deal-breakers for you or your workflow, then it’s probably worth it to make the jump to the M1 Max Mac Studio. In that case, the $1,999 base model should be a substantial upgrade over even the most powerful M1 Mac Mini, as the CPU and GPU in the M1 Max is 70% and four times faster, respectively, than those inside the M1.

A Mac Studio sitting next to Apple’s new Studio Display.

If you’d like to further increase its capabilities, you can upgrade the base Mac Studio to the 32-core GPU M1 Max option ($200) and top up your memory to 64GB ($400), which would bring the total to $2,599. If you’re working only with stills, this setup should be more than enough for almost any kind of work you can throw its way for years to come and is ultimately the best ‘bang for your buck’ when it comes to the Mac Studio lineup. Sure, you could upgrade further to the M1 Ultra and bump up it up to the maximum 128GB of RAM, but again, if you’re only using it for stills, that’s probably a bit overkill for your needs.

Hybrid Shooters

Now, if you’re someone who shoots both high-volume/high-resolution stills and 4K/8K video for your work, you’ll probably want to skip the M1 Mac Mini altogether and jump straight to the Mac Studio.

That means your entry-level option is the $1,999 Mac Studio with an M1 Max. That will get you the 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine M1 Max chipset with 32GB of RAM, 512GB of SSD storage and an array of ports that include Four Thunderbolt 4 ports, two USB-A ports, one HDMI port, one 10Gb Ethernet port and one 3.5mm headphone jack. Other upgrades include the jump to a 32-core GPU version of the M1 Max, up to 64GB of RAM and up to 8TB of internal SSD storage, although that upgrade alone will cost you more than the computer itself ($2,400).

The base M1 Max Mac Studio starts at $1,999. It includes 32GB of RAM and 512GB of internal SSD storage. The base M1 Ultra Mac Studio starts at $3,999. It includes 64GB of RAM and 1TB of internal SSD storage.

This setup, and any variations within, will be able to handle absolutely any photo workflow you throw its way and is more than enough for most any 4K ProRes/ProRes Raw video workflow considering Apple has integrated ProRes decoding and encoding into its M1 chipsets. 8K editing should also be possible with this setup, but if you want to future-proof your 8K workflow, you’ll probably want to upgrade to the 32-core GPU M1 Max chipset and max out the RAM to 64GB, which would bring your price to $2,599.

While no one is stopping you from upgrading to the M1 Ultra Mac Studio, the extra $2,000 it will cost you probably won’t make sense for hybrid shooters, unless you shoot much more video than stills, in which case you more than likely fall into the next category.

Videographers

If you’re a full-blown video creator who gravitates towards Apple devices, the Mac Studio is probably the computer you’ve been waiting for. It’s far more powerful than any Mac Mini Apple has ever made, but comes in at a much more manageable price point than any Mac Pro Apple has released. That said, it does have a few caveats worth noting when comparing it to Apple’s flagship desktop, the Mac Pro.

If you’re a full-blown video creator who gravitates towards Apple devices, the Mac Studio is probably the computer you’ve been waiting for

Whereas the Mac Pro is designed more like a typical Desktop PC, complete with expandable and interchangeable components, the Mac Studio is less upgradeable. Nearly every major component — CPU, GPU, RAM, internal storage and even I/O — is soldered onto the main board, which itself is sitting atop a very custom power supply and heatsink. So, if your workflow requires the use of PCI Express hardware and add-ons, the Mac Pro is the route you’ll need to take. There’s also the difference of chip manufacturers.

The Mac Pro offers one half-length PCI Express slot, three single-wide PCI Express slots and four double-wide PCI Express slots for nearly any combination of hardware imaginable.

While the Mac Pro is based on Intel’s Xeon W processors and AMD’s Radeon Pro GPUs, the Mac Studio runs on Apple’s proprietary M1 Max and M1 Ultra chipsets. If your work requires specific plugins or applications designed to leverage the capabilities of Intel processors or AMD graphics cards, the Mac Pro might be your only option, as it’s the only pro-grade computer in Apple’s product lineup that still uses Intel hardware.

However, it’s likely Apple will bring its proprietary chipsets to its Mac Pro lineup at some point in the near future, so if you’re set on Apple, you’re probably going to have to make the jump to Apple’s proprietary chipsets one day or another.

Left: The unique ‘cheese grater’ grille on the front of the Mac Pro. Left: The inside of a Mac Pro with a pair of Radeon Pro W6900X modules.

Should you decide to go with a Mac Pro, which starts out at $5,999 for the base model, the options are almost limitless as far as the processor, GPU, memory and storage goes. The maxed-out configuration, which includes 2.5GHz 28‑core Intel Xeon W processor (with Turbo Boost up to 4.4GHz), 1.5TB of RAM, Two Radeon Pro W6800X Duo with 64GB of GDDR6 memory each and 8TB of internal SSD storage will set you back a cool $50,000, so as long as your bank account has enough zeroes, you can max this thing out to your heart’s content.

If none of those limitations are critical to your workflow, however, the M1 Ultra Mac Studio is likely the desktop Apple computer you’ve been waiting for. It starts at $2,000 less than the entry-level Mac Pro and, at least based on initial benchmarks, it’s capable of performing as well in single-core and multi-core tests as the Mac Pro. And all in a package that’s cheaper, smaller and uses far less power.

The Mac Studio can run with up to four 5K displays and one 4K TV.

If your workflow is almost exclusively 4K, you can probably get away with the base M1 Ultra Mac Mini, which includes a 20-core CPU, 48-core GPU, 32-core Neural Engine, 64GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage. That should be more than enough power to process even the most intensive 4K Raw workflows and likely provide plenty of processing power for non-Raw 8K workflows. In the event you want to play it safe and future-proof your rig, however, there’s the option to upgrade to a 64-core GPU version of the M1 Ultra ($1,000) and 128GB of RAM ($800), which would bring your total to $5,799.

Conclusion

In the end, only you know what your needs are as a creator. While the M1 Mac Mini and Mac Pro are both respectable computers in their categories, the Mac Studio is shaping up to be quite the goldilocks of macOS desktop computing for creatives, considering its power, price and form factor.

Hopefully this guide can at least start to point you in the right direction towards getting the Apple desktop required for your workflow.